Lost River trailer (Screenshot: YouTube)

Once a beacon of 20th-century industry and prosperity, Detroit has fallen on hard times since the turn of the century, with 25 percent of its population leaving between 2000 and 2010. Rapid growth followed by rapid emptying has resulted in a city with areas and neighborhoods ripe with forgotten factories and forlorn dwellings, devoid of inhabitants. Burned-out apartment buildings and overgrown fields are like images out of a post-apocalyptic worst case scenario. It is not surprising, then, that Detroit has started to attract prominent filmmakers, including Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive) and Ryan Gosling (Lost River), who have used the crumbling metropolis as the backdrop for their own cinematic nightmares. Justine Smith writes about these films in an essay at RogerEbert.com titled “Detroit: The New City Of American Horror.”

It’s not so difficult to figure out the reason for this crop of Detroit-based horror movies. Decaying buildings are terrific for atmosphere, and the city itself serves as an easy and obvious metaphor for all kinds of larger socioeconomic issues. The question here is how to use Detroit effectively and responsibly in movies. So far, the results are mixed. In Smith’s view, Gosling’s film “fetishizes Detroit and mines it for cryptic and apocalyptic symbols.” She also takes the director to task a bit for “lean[ing] too heavily for horror” in his fantastic, fictionalized depiction of the city. Lost River is a film made by someone who is “ostensibly an outsider.” But the writer says that Lost River, despite being “messy and vapid,” still has value as “a collection of images.”

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Don’t Breathe, directed by Fede Alvarez of Uruguay, is dismissed as “shallow and vague, painting the city in broad strokes of misery.” On the other hand, Michigan native David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows is praised as “one of the most haunting visions of Detroit.” Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive offers some hope for the city, albeit in the darkest way possible. “There’s water here,” Tilda Swinton’s Eve observes. “When the cities in the South will burn, this place will be in bloom.”